Context for all

“…when you’re on your bike and you’re going up a hill…”

“…when you’re in a plane and you get pushed back into your seat…”

Do our students really know what we mean when we try and put new learning into context? Is our context relevant to them?

It was while I was on a flight that I came to a realisation that no, many of them probably don’t know what we mean. While flying you can sometimes feel the acceleration of the aeroplane and sometimes you can’t, and I thought I need to bring up this context in my lesson on acceleration and forces.

But when considering my students it occurred to me that some of them have probably never been on a flight before. I know I have spoken many times in lessons about aeroplanes and flying, but I now think many of my students may not have understood this context.

I try to add context to my lessons as much as I can, although some contexts are more likely to have been understood by more of my students than others. Contexts such as feeling a force when driving around a roundabout in a car, or the lack of friction when walking on an icy surface, may be understood by many of my students. But contexts such as feeling a force on a flight, may not be as universal as I previously thought.

On that flight, the thought that got to me the most though was that I unintentionally might be making some of my students feel left out or embarrassed. When using the context of taking off in an aeroplane, imagine being a student in the class who has never been in a plane, while everyone else around them is nodding away because they know what taking off feels like. Repeat this feeling over a few lessons and it would make the student associate that feeling with that specific teacher, or with that specific subject.

Some contexts I have used in the past may not be so relatable for various reasons. I have attempted to identify the types of contexts that may have a detrimental effect on a student’s learning:

  • Alienating
  • Complex
  • Outdated
  • Emotional
  • Abstract

I will now explain what I mean by these and will offer some suggestions for consideration.

Alienating contexts

Meaning: A student may understand the words in your context, but they have not experienced the context themselves and therefore have no interest in it.

Example: When teaching acceleration I would use the context of being on a bike waiting at a red light and then speeding up when the green light turns on, or on a plane as it prepares for take-off.

Issue: Students may have never owned a bike or been on a plane before and therefore do not feel that this lesson or subject is important to them.

Suggestions: While you cannot stop using some alienating contexts, there are things you can do to alleviate any detrimental effects. Make the context broader if possible or use multiple contexts for the same idea – there is no need to exclusively use the example of a bike or a plane, but all students will have felt an acceleration before in their lives. Consider what point you are trying to make.

Language plays an important part here as well. Gethyn Jones made me aware of a story about Walt Disney which is pertinent here:

They were writing a comic script about Goofy learning to ride a bike. Disney insisted that the narrator use the phrase “the bike” as in “When you get on *the* bike” rather than “When you get on *your* bike” as he thought that many of the kids watching the cartoon might feel bad if they didn’t own a bike.

Gethyn Jones

This is a simple yet powerful shift in language, and one that may be very important for some of your students.

Complex contexts

Meaning: A student has come across the context before but is finding it difficult to relate it to the concept.

Example: There are many contexts used in the teaching of the flow of current. A common one is to analogise the flow of current in a circuit with the flow of liquid in a pipe system.

Issue: Students may spend so long trying to understand the complex context that they lose sight of the purpose of it, or they begin to develop misconceptions because they are taking away the wrong parts of the context.

Suggestions: Carefully consider the contexts you are likely to use in a lesson or in a scheme of work. Do the students have enough prerequisite knowledge to find the context valuable? If not, would introducing the context lead to confusion among your students? Do not remove these contexts from your bank of resources, but hone in on the part of the context that you feel will be most useful and only focus on that part. In the example I gave about the flow of liquid, I would not use the complex pipe system as a whole but I might choose to focus on the liquid coming out of a tap, or of liquid reaching a junction in a pipe. Refine the context to better suit your needs.

Outdated contexts

Meaning: A student may be aware that the context exists but has not come across the context before in their lives because of their age.

Example: When teaching the differences between series and parallel circuits I would bring up Christmas tree lights and how, when I was younger, if a bulb used to blow they all went out and you had to check all of the bulbs.

Issue: Students are now unlikely to have used series circuit Christmas tree lights. They may not be aware of the context and therefore find the context meaningless, potentially causing them to disengage from the lesson.

Suggestions: Do not ditch these outdated contexts. While a context may not be immediately relevant to the learners in front of you, its importance in a historical sense is powerful. These contexts deserve to be told as stories so that students can see the progression of a subject matter through history and therefore see the relevance to their lives.

The importance of stories is backed up by findings from cognitive science. If we agree with Daniel Willingham’s argument that our ‘brains privilege story’ then it follows that learning is likely to be deeper if we incorporate stories, conflicts and dilemmas into our schemes.

Using stories in the curriculum, Mary Myatt (2019)

I still use the idea of Christmas lights in my lessons as it is a great story to tell. It could also be used as a challenging question for students once they have had exposure to series and parallel circuits. However, to use it as a context to introduce circuits does not seem relevant or helpful.

Do not remove outdated contexts, but rather reframe them and consider their timing in the sequencing of a concept.

Emotional contexts

Meaning: A student has come across this context but associates it with a negative emotion from their life.

Example: Talking about car safety or factors that affect the thinking distance of a driver. This example becomes problematic if a student or a family member was involved in a car accident.

Issue: These emotional contexts are unlikely to come up in a lesson without the teacher being aware that they may elicit a negative emotion from a portion of the class. These contexts may be very useful for many students and so ditching them completely may not be wise, however it is important to be aware of issues any of your students currently in front of you may have.

Suggestions: If you know a lesson is coming up that may require you to use these contexts, it would be worth a discussion with a head of year or head of subject. Does your context really need to be brought up, or is there another way you can approach it? Of course some contexts are necessary and are part of the curriculum as is the case with my physics examples, but I would have tried to find out beforehand if a student has had a negative experience with a context I may use, and would have a quiet chat with those students prior to the lesson. But sometimes even these chats aren’t necessary if you have created an atmosphere in your lessons where a student feels comfortable talking to you about an emotional context. Stuff like this happens and a student will get upset in your lesson, but the important thing is that you are able to deal with it as it arises.

Abstract contexts

Meaning: A student has simply never come across the context before.

Example: Imagine being in a rocket, or how it feels to jump on the Moon.

Issue: These contexts simply have no meaning to the students and they therefore have nothing concrete to base your idea on.

Suggestions: There are some contexts that may be abstract to some students and not to others and so may still be useful to include. These contexts can also be used as questions further into a topic once they have understood the idea behind it. One suggestion for making abstract concepts more relatable is to bring the context into your lesson. This can be done through the use of imagery or videos, or a physical object that can be brought into the classroom for them to see or feel. Show them a video of astronauts jumping on the Moon and then they can relate to that context better in the future.

Context is a wonderful and powerful thing, but if presented without enough thought to your students it might not help them to understand the concept. At worst your context could introduce misconceptions or be problematic for them.

I hope I have given some useful suggestions for improving the chance that your context has a positive effect on the learner.

Photo by Marco Tjokro on Unsplash

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